My sister once asked me how I managed to be both valedictorian and prom queen of my graduating class. Nerd and popular don’t often mix. It took several hours to figure out the answer.
When I was 16 years old my family moved from Texas to Maryland. In my new school, no one knew the awkward 14-year-old with braces. Instead, they met the 16-year-old me right after a Texan summer of life guarding, tanned skin, sunny blond highlights, and all. One boy asked me out two days after we moved. Another started leaving anonymous love notes in my locker. And that was before I got a haircut that started turning heads as I walked down the street.
My senior year, in all appearances I was living the high school dream. I dressed modestly and didn’t seek out attention, but attention came to me anyway. I remember the teenage boys at Blockbuster giving me free candy with my movie rental, the requests for my phone number while I stood in line at Starbucks, and the wolf whistles as I walked down the street. I had a new story of random male attention every week. The world just kept telling me over and over again that I was beautiful.
I hated it.
Let me repeat that so it can sink in.
I hated it.
I’ve typed and retyped this next sentence over and over again, erasing it and starting over, because I’m scared. This is where people usually laugh me off, where I know some people stop listening to me. The cry of the bullied and outcast is so universal, so heartfelt, that when the opposite cry tries to sound, people tend to think it’s not serious.
But please listen. Please. Because while this cry may not be as common as bullying and outcasts, that doesn’t mean it’s not serious. There must be some other girls out there that have felt the way I did. I’m writing this for them. Hopefully I won’t lose my nerve before I hit “Publish”.
You see, my parents raised me with conservative values. While I didn’t broadcast it or preach sermons, my classmates knew I was saving sex for marriage. I was interested in boys and had my string of crushes, but I didn’t want a physical relationship. I wanted a boy to like me, not my body, even when I was 17.
Despite that, at age 17 I watched the world place all my value on my looks. When boys whistled or let their eyes linger on me, I knew their attention had nothing to do with who I was as a person. If I’d had a different body, they wouldn’t have given me a second glance, and I knew it. Despite my modest clothing, there were days when I felt like my whole worth was summed up in my fortunate genetics and a nice collection of body parts.
And it wasn’t just strangers. Everyone in my school was nice to me. Everyone. Even the bullies and the mean girls were all sweetness as they complimented my shoes and hair. Did they think I didn’t see how cruel they were to one of my best friends? Did they think I didn’t notice how they teased and manipulated the boys I respected and cared about? What made me different? Why were they nice to me when they were so mean to my friends? I knew why. I weighed 103 pounds and had big, brown eyes that people described as “movie-star pretty”.
None of that had anything to do with who I was – my convictions and beliefs, passions and interests. I could have been anyone in that body and been treated the same way. It was hard to believe I had value beyond my appearance, and even worse, it was hard to trust the kindness of the people around me.
When everyone is nice to your face, how do you know who’s being real and who’s just making surface judgments? When a boy showed interest in me, would he still like me if I looked different?
During my junior year at my new high school I had two classmates that tried to pursue me, but I knew that both of them were putting me on a pedestal. They projected their ideal girl onto my image without giving any thought to who I was, my quirks, joys, and cares. I turned them both down. By senior year, when my Maryland classmates knew me better, none of the boys “liked” me in that way. I was appreciated enough in a general sense to be voted prom queen, but not one guy asked me to be his date to prom. I was the girl boys talked to about the other girls they liked. No one asked me out.
The contrast was weird, and it messed with my head. The world kept telling me over and over again that I was valuable because I was beautiful – but when I refused to let appearances be the definition of my self-worth, nobody wanted to be with me.
They don’t teach you how to deal with that. They don’t give seminars for the pretty girls who want to be appreciated for something other than their beauty. And because so many people want to be beautiful, they don’t understand when you beg them to look past the surface and see the real you. I became fixated with the idea of facades. I wrote poems crying out for society and my classmates to stop for a moment and really look at me – not my face or body, but me, the person! As morbid as it sounds, I used to wonder how my life would change if I became horribly scarred or deformed in some way. Who would stick around? Who would still care about me if I wasn’t pretty anymore?
I never talked about it, though. I had good friends. Amazing friends. They cared for me and supported me through high school heartbreak and serious family emergencies. They understood my conservative beliefs and knew I didn’t like being leered at, but I couldn’t find a way to make people understand my emotional insecurity. Most of the time I didn’t try.
For me, it took meeting my husband to finally reconcile my appearance with my sense of self-worth. From day one, he saw the real me and was attracted to me anyway. I am so blessed to have him.
But I can’t believe I’m the only girl that’s felt this way, so I have to tell my story for them. Please, even if you do not understand, be kind in your comments. On the off-chance that I’m right, don’t be mean for their sake.
…and for my sake, too. This wasn’t easy for me to write.